Chapel Hill, N.C. — Ten years ago this week, a trial lawyer named John Edwards jumped impatiently into public life. A political rookie, he filed to run for U.S. Senate.
He tapped a personal fortune earned in the courtroom to beat a Republican incumbent, then told friends at a New Year's Day party near the end of his term that he would pass on a re-election campaign to seek the White House instead.
He lost, first in trying to be the Democratic nominee, then as a candidate for vice president, but never really stopped running. He lost again Wednesday, dropping out of the race after failing to win any of the Democratic party's first four nominating contests.
"It was a fast rise," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked with Edwards during his winning 1998 Senate campaign. "Yesterday he was going full tilt, and now he's out."
But Edwards exits only after winning a pledge from his rivals to "make ending poverty central to their campaign." It is a sign – much like his decision to make his first campaign a run for the Senate, and then to leave it for a presidential campaign after a single term – that Edwards intends to remain in public life, even if not in public office.
"I think he will continue to play a strong political role," said adviser Kate Michelman, a former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "He's got a big future in terms of his continued mission on the issues that have become his life work. It's just that the next phase of his life on those issues has yet to unfold."
No longer a candidate, Edwards now faces decisions about that next phase of his life and the role North Carolina will play in his future. The near-term focus is sure to be family: Edwards is the father of three children, and his wife, Elizabeth, is fighting a recurrence of breast cancer.
His family joined him Wednesday in New Orleans, where he ended his campaign in the same hurricane-ravaged city where it began in December 2006. He returned to North Carolina on Wednesday night, and it appears the state will continue to be Edwards' base. He sold his tony Georgetown home in Washington where he lived while in the Senate, replacing it with a large estate not far from Chapel Hill.
"It seems like he's tied to North Carolina and this wouldn't be a bad base for him to operate from even at the national level," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Peace College in Raleigh. "I don't see him moving to Hollywood and being part of a glitzy lifestyle."
Relatively young at 54, Edwards has a host of long-term options, although he didn't offer any specifics about his future on Wednesday.
Edwards said last week he had no interest in again running as a vice-presidential nominee, and he failed to make an impact in his home state while on the Democratic ticket in 2004. President Bush easily won North Carolina's 15 electoral votes.
Also unlikely is another run for Senate. There are already several Democrats running this year to challenge GOP incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Edwards beat Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1998 by running as a moderate Democrat, but he has moved to the left as a candidate for the White House in 2008.
"Once you run for president twice and have lost, it's not likely that you'll run again for any public office," Pearce said.
Hunter Bacot, director of the Elon University Poll, said voters who elected Edwards to his single term also might also be wary of a politician who so quickly moved on from North Carolina.
Edwards didn't immediately endorse either of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. But it's possible he could land a position in the cabinet of a Democratic president, especially if he later helps the ultimate nominee win in November.
"I think he'd make an outstanding attorney general if he were interested," state Democratic Party chairman Jerry Meek said.
Whatever his role, Edwards made it plain that he plans to remain focused on poverty. Ten years ago, on the day he filed to get on the ballot in his first run for office, he pledged to run a "people's campaign."
"I've never run for public office before, so maybe I'll make a political mistake in the months ahead," he said on Jan. 26, 1998. "But one mistake I'll never make, in this campaign or in the Senate, is to forget where I come from and who I represent."
On Wednesday, ending what may be his last campaign, Edwards pledged to keep fighting for the people, calling it the "cause of my life."
"This son of a mill worker is going to be just fine," Edwards said. "Our job now is to make certain that America will be fine."